Independent Clauses | n. —unusual words about underappreciated music

The 21st Century’s wide-eyed, bohemian indie-pop enchants

June 7, 2012

I love it when a specific scene has an identifiable sound. Sometimes I don’t like the specific sound that is happening, but I love the idea that people kicking around ideas among themselves over a long period of time will come up with iterations, similarities and variations that push toward the sum. And there almost always is a sum, even if it’s something seemingly unquantifiable like an artistic movement: the pinnacle of a form does not appear on the first try, by anyone. Rockin’ the Suburbs was nowhere near the first piano-pop album, nor Ben Folds’ first rodeo; it just happens to have assimilated all the ideas that had been kicking about in a particularly excellent way.

All that to say this: the lush orchestrations, wide-eyed lyrics, group vocals and bohemian charm make The City by The 21st Century sound very much like a Pacific Northwest indie pop band (The Morning Benders/Pop Etc, Grizzly Bear, Local Natives – although they’re from LA). And instead of that being a bad thing, it’s a great thing. “We Are Waiters” has familiar elements like plunking piano and big group vocals, but they invite the listener in so the band can drop the intoxicating chorus. I had the chorus on loop in my mind for days after I heard it the first time, and that’s incredibly rare for a guy who listens to music all day.

The band makes its living on gleeful tunes that incorporate guitar noodling, horns, organ solos and a well-developed sense of space. These songs may have a lot going on, but they’re not crowded: the production allows for everything to breathe. “The Good Things (Act I and II)” is the best example of this, as the band throws the kitchen sink at the tune and it still doesn’t feel as heavy as a power-pop trio with a huge guitar riff. “A Funeral March (The State of Our Parade)” is another melodic highlight, filled out with lyrics about the meaning of life (no, for real). “The Parisian Translation” gets its Decemberists on in the melodic structures, but not so much that it feels like a rip-off. It’s just incredibly fun. (And yes, there’s French spoken in the song!)

So where does the line draw between inhabiting a sound and retreading a sound? I think the difference lies in each person’s desire for the genre, just like I mentioned yesterday: The 21st Century’s game is the same as Friends of Mine. (This style of indie-pop is just as divisive as country, and I would guess mostly for the same reasons: two parts backlash to its related culture, one part resistance to the idiosyncrasies of the sound). The 21st Century takes an established sound and builds something inside it; those with a low threshold for the genre’s quirks won’t get this and feel that it’s just some more of that stuff, while those who love the genre will enjoy the new entrant into the field.

Given that ideas ruminate and kick around, the entry of another band into the field allows for another possible group who could come up with the definitive statement (or statements!) for this genre. If you’re a fan of the type of music that The Morning Benders purveyed on Big Echo, this one’s going to make you sit up and take notice.

The Ashes send off the ironic era with ragtime and hoedown

June 5, 2012

I will always remember that September 11th happened on a Tuesday because of an odd, unfortunate coincidence: Ben Folds’ poignant depiction of ’90s life Rockin’ the Suburbs was released on the same day that the ’90s truly ended. (For example, the Y2K scare seems quaint compared to the actual disasters we’ve had to put up with in the post-9/11 years.) Kicking off Folds’ masterpiece is “Annie Waits,” which is effectively about the fear of “if we’re both still lonely when we’re old.” This sort of thinking was relatively paranoiac in the successful ’90s, Radiohead excepted, and yet it’s the first thing that Folds says about his vision of suburban life: It’s lonely and scary.

Flash forward 11 years and The Ashes deliver “Talk Like They Talk on TV,” which is also about the suburbs and “if we’re both still single when we’re getting close to 40.” But instead of earnest paranoia, this one’s coated in irony and sarcasm. Just as Suburbs was a referendum on an earnest decade closing, The Ashes Sing! is a jab at an ironic era ending.

The irony that is being parodied and skewered (or, if this reviewer is getting it completely wrong, simply presented) does not extend only to the lyrics. The music itself is an exaggeration of the folk tendencies of indie in the 2000s, as Shane Vidaurri and co. mine truly old-time sounds like ragtime, hoedown country, rockabilly and country/gospel. “Her Blue Eyes” includes washboard, stand-up bass, fiddle and barbershop harmonies; “Leaving Port” goes way back and includes what sounds like a harpsichord as a featured instrument. “Shane’s Blues” does its very best to appropriate the rhythms and melodies of New Orleans Jazz. Some will find the high vocals to be a confusing addition to the sound, but it just serves to point out the quirkiness of a folk uptick in the 21st century.

This is an eclectic stew, to be sure, but it’s a fun one: it’s impossible to tell what will be around the corner. With 15 songs spread over 47 minutes, there are plenty of twists and turns to love. If you’re into folk or sounds like it, The Ashes Sing! should be on your list.

Stephen Carradini and Lisa Whealy write reviews of instrumental, folk, and singer/songwriter music. We write about those trying to make the next step in their careers and established artists.

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